Japan Eats

Greasy Spoons (and Chopsticks): Merci Ramen

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In the second of a series on the Baba-Waseda ramen belt, Nick settles in for a bit at Merci.

From Shichifukya, where to go, where to go? Down the road on an express route to the finish line? That ain’t never been Nick’s way.

To school, then. Leaving Shichifukuya and turning right, you can travel but a few stretches of the pins to old Merci, also on your right, not far from Waseda station.

“Old” is the key word here. For a guy like yours truly, Merci has two appealing points and one important thing to be wary of, just like a good dame.

Fancy name aside, everything about this place is straightforward, which, oddly enough, gives it a kind of subtle charm. From the white plastic katakana sign hanging over the sidewalk to the old style display case showing off dusty plastic ramen and omu-rice next to the door to the big plate glass window fronting the place – you know what you’re getting into before you even walk through the door.

So what is it that you’re getting into?

A fairly spacious, veneer-paneled, tiled room, sans the usual counter. Instead, Merci has neatly-spaced wood-grain formica tables surrounded by two to six plastic chairs each. The kitchen is in the back and has a big pass-through, like most non-ramen restaurants. The feeling that Merci was not originally a ramen shop is strong.

The menu is simple, relatively brief, and printed in black and white on the wall. Your guide went for the chashumen, which, at 630 yen, was just about the most expensive thing on the menu, including the beer, which was 530 yen for a big bottle of Super Dry.

The wait for the ramen was not long – Merci has prompt, courteous service, if not the garrulous buddy-buddy-ness of many newer, trendier noodleries, which seems to suit it’s all but 100% male, student and salaryman clientele just fine.

The crowd seemed split about two to one between small groups of students lingering over cigarettes and sports papers or manga and salarymen who bolted (their food) and bolted (for somewhere else to linger).

There was a distinct, sour old ramen shop smell, not really a pleasant odor, even if it is kind of familiar, but I soon got used to it and, unlike another place I shall later review in this space, it wasn’t enough to cause discomfort.

Before the big kerosene heater by the table had time to warm my toes, a perfectly ordinary bowl of shoyu ramen was set down next to my beer. A bit of seaweed, a bit of corn, and some pleasantly thick chasu slices topped a bowl of very ordinary noodles – neither thick nor thin, neither hard nor soft, in a bowl of very ordinary soup – salty, a little oily – no secret ingredient, no texture, no intrigue. This was not Goldilocks’s “just right” so much as eminently forgettable.

That’s not the point, though. Merci has a different crowd (and it does have a crowd, especially at lunch time). I love a place that is so very Showa. That reminds of a time before I was born, but without being retro. This is not the time of movies recounting an elderly director’s childhood, but the time of his late 30s and 40s. The time of architecture and furnishings that would be forgettable were they not so pervasive, if overshadowed these days. This is the real “delightfully tacky”, which has nothing to do with dolls pretending Mötley Crüe is going to come back for real. This is a little taste of a time not so long ago, the boom time, when there was no time decorate with taste or build to last.

Merci‘s crowd, though, seems to love different things: it’s cheap, it’s fast, there’s a basket of manga, and the staff don’t mind if you hang around for a while after you eat in the afternoon.

Merci is near Waseda station on the Tokyo Metro Tozai line. Take the elevator up, turn right out of it, go past Shichifukuya, pas the SMBC ATM, and you’ll see it on your right. Big plate glass window. Ramen from 400 yen.

About Nick Kowalski
Nick "The Sticks" Kowalski likes his eateries like he likes his dates: simple, cheap, and hassle-free. From dives to diners, kiosks to the eponymous greasy spoons, old Nick knows how to eat in Tokyo and come out laughing at the notion of it being one of the world's most expensive cities.

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